When we were growing up, we each had opportunities to look into the eyes of exotic, caged animals from places as far away as Africa. Whether it was a zoo, a circus, or another venue, we could smell the dung, watch the elephants spray water on their backs, gaze at the unimaginably long giraffe’s neck as it chewed its dry hay, and see the lioness pacing in her cage driving a path into the barren floor. We both grew to hate the sight of the animals caged, and the more we learned about the complex social structures of lion prides, herds of elephants, the long migrations of the zebra and wildebeest, the more we rejected the idea that cages, even the largest and most generous of “habitats,” could ever mimic the open ranges and jungles of their homes.
In Africa we were in the cages; whether they were the high top Land Cruisers that dotted the landscapes like wildebeest in the distance or a tent or cabana where we were zipped in for a night. We were allowed no more than 10 feet from our vehicles in stops to “check the tire pressure,” a euphemism for peeing behind the car, after our guides threw rocks in the brush around us to ensure no waiting leopard or lions. We were the ones escorted at night by vigilant armed men with AK47s scanning the path to our abode. We asked one if they had ever actually seen lions in the camp area and he smiled bemusedly at us, replying that the most recent one he had seen had been lying on the porch of our cabin.
We loved our cages, though. They allowed us a glimpse into the daily lives of the African wildlife, unimpeded by our presence on the landscape. Through the bars of our safari pop-top vehicle we glimpsed a family of hyenas at a den and watched lions wake up, bathe each other, and play as kittens do. We watched, transfixed, as one lioness dragged a recently killed young Thompson Gazelle away from another and as another group of three lionesses tried to catch a zebra. Another sought the shade of our vehicle, lying at our feet, and the last stared at us with hunger in her piercing, yellow eyes. With no cage surrounding her, she considered the risk of leaping the short 5 feet into our vehicle, and the open air Land Cruiser with rolled down windows and a popped top suddenly felt like its “gates” needed to be drawn. Elephants meandered by with babies less than a week old trying to walk under the giant footsteps of their mothers and aunts, ears impossibly big for their size. Giraffes chewed their cud, staring thoughtfully at the strange beasts in the cages below them as oxpeckers dug ticks from their thick hide, sliding up and down their spindly legs and long necks. Cheetahs eyed us thoughtfully, moving their young back a few feet, not sure of the reach of the animals in their iron cages that had thundered down toward them on the vast plains. Herds of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles split apart as we slid through them, engulfed by their dust and feeling their hoof beats through the floor of the Land Cruiser.
We know that it is a rare privilege to enter into the world of wildlife. We have no illusions about us being there, for there is always some impact caused by our presence, no matter the attempts to minimize it. Yet, we would gladly enter our cages to ensure that theirs are left open; that they can remain unimpeded, free to roam. The world is becoming more populated and the great migrations reduced in size and grandeur. Protected parks in some regions have lost two thirds of their elephant herds in less than five years from market pressure and poachers with few other solutions before them. The World Wildlife Fund reported that in the last 4 decades, animal and fish populations have declined by more than 50%. One cannot help but wonder if the generations that follow ours will see animals only in cages…if at all. There are many organizations, governments, and special individuals engaged in actions to ensure that such a future never emerges, but it could if we are complacent. There is real human hunger and suffering surrounding these herds as there was surrounding our own vast animal herds in north America. In our country, it was the wealth of nature and our natural resources that were the keys opening the access gates for many Americans. Yet our vast herds of grazing animals are gone as are other species such as passenger pigeons that seemed infinite only a decade or two before they were driven extinct. Some see ecotourism as a solution for preservation. In the end, modern ecotourism tends to benefit only a few, rather than the many who stare at the people and cars racing by to see their land and animals. The question before us is how to open the doors for all rather than ignoring the cage of poverty. Without solutions, we are likely one of the last generations to see the amazing abundance and diversity of animals we have viewed these past weeks.
Posted in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Images are of our “Toyota Land Cruiser cage”, a hungry lioness, and a small portion of the thousands of wildebeest migrating near the Serengeti.